Leading conservatives have taken to pretending that the alt-right is a fringe movement that they and President Trump have disavowed. In recent interviews and at a high-profile conservative conference last month, conservatives have taken great pains to distance conservatism — and the Trump administration — from any alt-right influence.
But here’s the reality: The alt-right’s deep influence over this White House is on display daily — in Trump’s rhetoric and his administration’s policies. The alt-right influence on Trump matters: it means the most powerful man in the world is under the influence of a racist and white nationalist movement. And conservatives should reckon with this more forthrightly.
For instance, note this podcast that the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart conducted with American Conservative Union president Matt Schlapp. Capehart pointed out that Stephen K. Bannon and Stephen Miller are Trump’s top White House advisers, and asked: “Doesn’t that mean, that despite the concerns, the alt-right is now mainstreamed, if not the power within the White House?” Schlapp flatly denied that the alt-right had been mainstreamed in this manner.
Bannon — who is now Trump’s most influential adviser — told me last summer, when he was chairman of Breitbart, that his site was “the platform for the alt-right.” Capehart questioned Schlapp about this, but Schlapp argued, implausibly, that this is not as significant as it appears. Schlapp insisted that when Bannon said that Breitbart is the platform for the alt-right, “he wasn’t trying to endorse the racist ideology of that group.” Yet Breitbart was and remains one-stop shopping for readers looking for anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric and disinformation, as well as stories about “black crime.”
This echoed similar head-in-the sand denials that were on full display last month at the ACU’s Conservative Political Action Conference. For instance, Dan Schneider, the ACU’s executive director, delivered a speech denouncing the alt-right — but not as the far-right white nationalist movement that it is, but rather as “garden variety left-wing fascists.” By attempting (not very convincingly) to pin the movement on the left, Schneider sought to portray the alt-right as an interloper that is not exerting any influence over Trump or his conservative supporters.
But hours later, Schlapp welcomed Bannon for an interview on the CPAC main stage. Schlapp didn’t ask Bannon a single question about the alt-right — or about what Bannon meant when he claimed that his web site was a platform for it.
The reality is that it is under Bannon’s influence that the administration has taken its actions that most thrill the alt-right, most notably his moves to step up deportation of undocumented immigrants, and ban refugees and migrants from Muslim-majority countries.
When Bannon and I spoke this summer, he tried to deny to me that the alt-right is a white nationalist movement, although he did concede that white nationalists and anti-Semites could be attracted to “some of the philosophies of the alt-right.” But, as I have written after Trump tapped him to head up his campaign, Bannon nonetheless praised the deeply Islamophobic ethno-nationalism on the rise in Europe, like the National Front in France, led by far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
And then there’s Trump’s choice of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General. During the transition, alt-right leaders were delighted with the Sessions pick, pointing to his opposition to immigration as well as their hope that he would stop enforcing civil rights laws and might even prosecute Black Lives Matter protesters.
As Emily Bazelon writes, Sessions has long been a devoted Breitbart reader, and met regularly with the site’s writers. Trump’s dark vision of America as besieged by inner city crime, immigrants, and refugees, Bazelon notes, “provides clear justification for policies that will advance Sessions, Bannon and Miller’s divisive nationalism.” Justice Department policy, under Sessions, she adds, aims “to strengthen the grip of law enforcement, raise barriers to voting and significantly reduce all forms of immigration, promoting what seems to be a longstanding desire to reassert the country’s European and Christian heritage.”
Indeed, Sessions is altering the core mission of the Department of Justice to one with less of a focus on civil and voting rights. Trump’s false claims about voter fraud are straight out of the ugly maw of alt-right meme-making, portraying supposed voter fraud as a scourge perpetrated by African-Americans and undocumented immigrants — a possible signal that a crackdown on voting rights is coming, one that Sessions would likely help carry out from the Justice Department.
Despite the determined spin, the reality is that Trumpism would not exist without the alt-right. Conservatives can pretend it’s fringe and has little to no influence on the Trump administration — but the proof is in the policy.